Moral Courage (November 30, 1863)

Alfred Waud titled this sketch "Rebel line on the left at the railroad cutting. Mine Run--opposite Warrens last position." Warren and then Meade both decided that Lee's entrenched position was too strong to attack. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Alfred Waud titled this sketch “Rebel line on the left at the railroad cutting. Mine Run–opposite Warrens last position.” Warren and then Meade both decided that Lee’s entrenched position was too strong to attack. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

We continue with an account by Theodore Lyman as he details the climax—the anti-climax actually—of George Meade’s Mine Run campaign. As I write in Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg, Gouverneur Warren had planned to launch his offensive the next morning, with an artillery barrage signaling the start of the attack. Warren would go in at 8:00, and then John Sedgwick, on the opposite end of Robert E. Lee’s line, would begin his movement. The guns began roaring on time at 8:00, but at 8:50 Capt. Washington Roebling (of later Brooklyn Bridge fame) came galloping up to Meade’s headquarters with a message from Warren. Meade read it. “My God!” he exclaimed. “General Warren has half my army at his disposition!”

Warren had carefully surveyed the enemy position opposite his and decided, on his own authority, that the Confederates had strengthened it so much during the night that it was now much too strong to attack.

The Mine Run defenses did appear strong indeed. Chaplain Alexander Stewart of the 102nd Pennsylvania felt certain an attack on them would lead to a great loss of life. The men in his regiment agreed, and as the day passed they came to him and filled his pockets with all the mementos of the lives they expected would soon end—money, photographs, rings, watches. Some soldiers began pinning their names to their coats so their bodies could be identified. What impressed Stewart, though, was that despite the terrible odds, these soldiers were still willing to go into battle.

Lt. Col. Charles H. Morgan of the II Corps staff suspected that many officers shared their soldiers’ misgivings but kept their doubts to themselves. One picket from the 1st Minnesota, not realizing that Morgan was an officer, didn’t hide anything. He told Morgan the enemy position was “a damned sight worse than Fredericksburg” and added, “I am going as far as I can travel; but we can’t get more than two-thirds of the way up the hill.”

Pvt. Wilbur Fisk of the 2nd Vermont, at the other end of the Union line with Sedgwick’s VI Corps, studied the Confederate defenses with great interest because there seemed a pretty fair chance that he would soon be testing them personally. “There was a deep creek between us and the enemy, and the rebels had been busy digging rifle-pits and strengthening their position ever since we came up to them,” he wrote. “Both banks were abrupt and steep and difficult to get over, while on the rebel side they had added to these disadvantages by placing every conceivable obstacle in the way of our advance. Trees were felled, abattis made, breastworks were thrown up until they occupied a position that if we had occupied we should have considered impregnable against all the rebels in the universe.”

After consulting with Warren and examining the defenses for himself, Meade reluctantly agreed with his subordinate’s opinion—attacking Lee’s position here would be nothing more than a useless slaughter, another Fredericksburg. Meade suspected someone else would have to take the responsibility for renewing the war against the Army of Northern Virginia, because he expected to be removed from command for canceling his attack.

Meade and his corps commanders. Gouverneur Warren (II Corps) is seated at left; William French (III Corps) stands next to Warren. Then, left to right, are Meade, artillery chief Henry Hunt, and chief of staff Andrew Humphreys (Library of Congress).

Meade and his corps commanders. Gouverneur Warren (II Corps) is seated at left; William French (III Corps) stands next to Warren. Then, left to right, are Meade, artillery chief Henry Hunt, chief of staff Andrew Humphreys, and the V Corps’ George Sykes (Library of Congress).

Almost before daylight our waggons were loaded and away, for the Headquarters are only a few hundred yards in the rear of our heavy guns and directly on the road, so that we expected a nice lot of shells, say at 8.10 A.m. A little before that the General mounted and rode towards General [John] Newton’s quarters, and, while near there, bang! went a cannon on the right; then boom! boom! from the 32 pounders, and then, bang, boom, bang, pretty generally. In all the woods the troops were massed for the attack, waiting orders. We rode back to Headquarters, and, a moment after, Captain [Augustus] Roebling from General Warren’s Staff, galloped up. He is the most immovable of men, but had, at that moment, rather a troubled air. He handed a scrap of paper. General Meade opened it and his face changed. “My God!” he said, “General Warren has half my army at his disposition!” Roebling shrugged his shoulders. The note was to the effect that General Warren had made a careful examination of the enemy’s works, had altered his opinion of last evening, and considered an assault hopeless!!! Orders were at once issued to cease firing. We tried to take it all philosophically, but it was hard, very hard. Most of all to General Meade and General [Andrew] Humphreys, who really took it admirably, for both of them have excellent tempers of their own, which, on occasions, burst forth, like twelve-pounder spherical case. In a little while the General again rode away; this time to see General Warren, some four miles off. Two aides, besides myself, went with him. We rode along the rear of our batteries, which were still, from time to time, exchanging shots with those opposite; though not when I chanced to be passing, I am happy to say. General Warren had a sad face, as well he might. He drew aside, with the two other generals, and there they stood, in long consultation, over a fire which had been made for them, for the air was sharp. Then we started back again, stopping half-way at General [William] French’s, whom we found in a fuming passion, partly because two of his divisions had been, in some way, put under guidance of General Warren, and partly because he was all ready for the assault and had pushed his skirmish line to within 300 yards of the Rebel works, while the storming parties were in a great rage at not being led on. Alas! it was of no use; General Humphreys, with a heavy sigh, pronounced the opportunity (if it had ever existed) now past; and, when he cries no fight, you may be sure there is not much chance. At a meeting that evening, the other generals concurred. It was physically impossible to flank any more on either side, and the only thing that remained was:

The King of France with forty thousand men,
Marched up a hill; and then marched down again.

Wherever the fault lies, I shall always be astonished at the extraordinary moral courage of General Meade, which enabled him to order a retreat, when his knowledge, as an engineer and a soldier, showed that an attack would be a blunder. The men and guns stood ready: he had only to snap his fingers, and that night would probably have seen ten thousand wretched, mangled creatures, lying on those long slopes, exposed to the bitter cold, and out of reach of all help! Then people would have said: “He was unsuccessful; but then he tried hard, and did not get out.”

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 56-8. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Rappahannock Station (November 7, 1863)

 

Artist Alfred Waud called this drawing "Capture of the fortifications on the Rappahannock at the Railway Bridge--by the right wing commanded by Genl. Sedgwick" (Library of Congress). Click to enlarge.

Artist Alfred Waud called this drawing “Capture of the fortifications on the Rappahannock at the Railway Bridge–by the right wing commanded by Genl. Sedgwick” (Library of Congress). Click to enlarge.

In his letter of November 7, 1863, Theodore Lyman describes the Army of the Potomac’s small but unexpected triumph at a spot called Rappahannock Station. Today the small village alongside the river is called Remington, but it’s been a place of many names. First a riverside gristmill gave it the name of Millview. In 1850 it became Bowenville, after a prominent resident. Three years later the arrival of the Orange and Alexandria Railroad rechristened it Rappahannock Station. In 1890 the post office requested a change because of confusion with a town called Tappahannock. A Captain Remington was supposedly a popular conductor on the railroad, so the residents decided to name it after him.

Back in 1863 Meade’s plan called for William French and the III Corps to cross the Rappahannock River downstream at ever-busy Kelly’s Ford. At the same time John Sedgwick, in overall command of the V and VI Corps (with Brig. Gen. Horatio Wright taking immediate command of Sedgwick’s corps), would attack the rebel breastworks at Rappahannock Station. Most of the Confederate army lay in wait on the other side of the river, but the rebels had constructed a strong advance position on the north bank, using entrenchments that Union soldiers had constructed earlier in the war. For once, not only did everything go according to plan, but everything went better than anyone dared hope. On the morning of November 7 French successfully crossed the river at Kelly’s Ford. At Rappahannock Station, the VI Corps approached the Confederate works to the right of the railroad, with the V Corps to the left. Then the men of the VI Corps began charging the rebel lines at double-quick and rushed over the works like a tsunami. The first man over the Confederate breastworks was supposedly a sergeant from the 6th Maine, who looked around, realized he was surrounded by rebel troops, and shouted that he surrendered. Then he saw other men from his regiment jumping over the works behind him. “I take it back!” he cried and snatched up an enemy flag. The fighting was fierce and concentrated until elements of the V Corps attacked from the flank and rear, shattering the rebel defenses. Night fell and the battle was over. It was a sudden and unexpected victory, with the Federals having killed, wounded, or captured more than sixteen hundred Confederates.

 . . . This morning, forward march! horse, foot, and artillery, all streaming towards Dixie; weather fresh and fine, nothing to mar but a high wind, and, in some places, clouds of dust. Everyone was hearty; there was General [Alexander] Hays, in bed with rheumatism, but he hopped up, and got on his horse, remarking that, “if there were any Rebs to catch, he was all well.” Our last Headquarters were on the Warrenton branch railroad, half a mile north of it and three miles from Warrenton Junction. This morning, about 8.30, when all the troops were reported under way, the General started and rode, first to Warrenton Junction, and then down the railroad, towards the Rappahannock. At a rising ground, where a smoke-stained chimney marked the ruins of “Bealton,” we halted. Hence we could see a considerable distance, in both directions, and here was canny [Gouverneur] Warren, waiting while his corps filed past, his little black eyes open to everything, from the grand movements of the entire army down to the inscription on my swordguard, which he immediately detected, and read with much gravity. The last I saw of him he climbed on his big white horse and remarked with a wink: “As soon as I get there, I shall bring on a general action, right off.” It was here that I had quite a surprise. Looking through my glass at General [Alexander] Webb’s division, I detected two civilians, in English-looking clothes, riding with the Staff. As they approached, it seemed to me that the face of one was familiar; and as they rode up, behold, to be sure, the Hon. Mr. Yorke, who was our fellow passenger and played on the fiddle and admired the baby! He was in the Royal Artillery, you know, and had come down to see what he could. And there he was, much covered with dust, but cheerful and pleasant to the last.

A view of the modern railroad bridge across the Rappahannock at Remington. In 1863 this was Rappahannock Station and the bridge had been burned (Tom Huntington photo).

A view of the modern railroad bridge across the Rappahannock at Remington. In 1863 this was Rappahannock Station and the bridge had been burned (Tom Huntington photo).

It was a fine sight to see the great, black columns of infantry, moving steadily along, their muskets glittering in the sun (for the day was quite perfect as to clearness), and then the batteries on the flank, and, in the rear, the train of ambulances preceded by their yellow flag. As the masses drew near, they resolved themselves, first into brigades, then into regiments, and then you could distinguish the individual soldiers, covered with dust and bending under their heavy packs, but trudging manfully along, with the patient air of old sojers. And so we kept on to these Headquarters; but we were only half way (at 1.30), when bang! bang! we heard the cannon, in the direction of Rappahannock station. It was General Sedgwick attacking the enemy’s works on this side of the river. We had not got a mile, when whang! whang! in another direction, announced General French preparing to force Kelly’s Ford. For, at these two points, among others, we proposed to cross and wake up our Uncle Lee. The gallant General did not wait to play long shots or throw pontoon bridges. An entire division took to the water, forded the river, in face of the enemy, and, charging up the opposite bank, took 300 prisoners. The Rebs threw forward a supporting division, but the crafty French had established guns on this side of the river, that suddenly opened on them and drove them back. All the afternoon Sedgwick has been engaged against the rifle-pits and a redoubt, that the enemy held on this side of the river. Quite late, we got a despatch that he had driven them from their rifle-pits, and we thought he had done pretty well for an afternoon. But, just at dusk, the distant roll of musketry indicated that he was assaulting; and a telegraph has just come, that he has taken the redoubt with four cannon, and some prisoners; I do not yet know how many. So we go to sleep, encouraged and hopeful. Our losses I do not know, but they can hardly be much, as but a portion has been engaged. . . .

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 42-4. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

A Capital Visit (October 23, 1863)

The United States Capitol as it appeared on June 28, 1863, coincidentally, the day that Meade received command of the Army of the Potomac. William Franklin, under whom Meade had served at Fredericksburg, had been the engineer in charge of the new dome construction before the war (Library of Congress).

The United States Capitol as it appeared on June 28, 1863, coincidentally, the day that Meade received command of the Army of the Potomac. William Franklin, under whom Meade had served at Fredericksburg, had been the engineer in charge of the new dome construction before the war (Library of Congress).

In which General Meade describes a summons to Washington. His laconic account in this letter to his wife is not terribly informative. Fortunately we have Theodore Lyman to fill in the details (and add, it must be said, a taste of the casual racism that would have been considered perfectly normal in the nineteenth century but grates against twenty-first century sensibilities). I’ve included Lyman’s letters from both October 23 and 24 here.

Yesterday I received an order to repair to Washington, to see the President. I arrived in Washington at 2 P. M., and expected to leave at 6 P. M., but was detained so late that I remained there all night, and left this morning, early. The President was, as he always is, very considerate and kind. He found no fault with my operations, although it was very evident he was disappointed that I had not got a battle out of Lee. He coincided with me that there was not much to be gained by any farther advance; but General Halleck was very urgent that something should be done, but what that something was he did not define. As the Secretary of War was absent in Tennessee, final action was postponed till his return.

Here’s Lyman’s much more expansive account:

Major General John Sedgwick. His men called him "Uncle John." (Library of Congress)

Major General John Sedgwick. His men called him “Uncle John.” (Library of Congress)

And where do you think I was all yesterday? I will tell you. Early, the orderly, poked his head into the tent saying: “Colonel Lyman, the General will have breakfast at seven” (which was an hour earlier than he had said the night before). As soon as I sat down, says the General: “I am going to Washington; would you like to go?” . . . Major-General Humphreys said he too would go, and the General’s son George completed the party. In much haste I ran, and crammed my best coat, pantaloons, shoes, sash, gauntlets, and brushes into my big saddle-bags, the which I entrusted to a mounted orderly. Thereupon we speedily got on horseback, and first rode to General Sedgwick (familiarly called “Uncle John”), to whom General Meade handed over the command, in his absence at Washington, to consult about the late moves and those consequent on them. Uncle John received the heavy honors in a smiling and broad-shouldered style, and wished us all a good journey, for he is a cheery soul. With little delay, we again mounted and rode twelve miles, briskly, to Gainesville, whither the railroad comes. The Chief stepped into a little room, used as a telegraph-office, and, quicker than winking, he stood, arrayed only in his undergarments; then, before, almost, I could get my coat off, he had put on a pair of shoes, a new coat, and an elegant pair of trousers! “Now then, Lyman, are you ready? Where’s Humphreys? Humphreys is always late! Come, come along, the train is going to start!” You should have seen the unfortunate Aide — his coat unbuttoned, his shoestrings loose; on one arm the saddle-bags, on the other, his sword, sash, etc., etc., and he hastening after the steam-engine Meade! However I completed my toilette in the car, which was all to ourselves; and flatter myself that my appearance was considerably peacock. We went rattling and bumping over a railroad that reminded me of the one from Civita Vecchia, to Manassas Junction, and thence to Washington, over a route I have already described to you when I came down. Only this time we came through Alexandria, and, instead of taking there a boat, kept on and went across the long bridge, going thus into the very city by the rail. There was a carriage from Willard’s awaiting us; the guardpost near by turned out in our honor, and we drove in great state to General Halleck’s office; where General Meade went in and held a solemn pow-wow; the two came forth presently and walked over to the White-House, where they held another pow-pow with the President. Captain George and I, meanwhile, studied the exterior architecture, and I observed a blind had been blown off and broken and allowed to lie outside. In fact they have a nigger negligence, to a considerable extent, in this half-cooked capital.

October 24, 1863

We went to Willard’s after the pow-pow and got a very good dinner; only poor General Meade was bored to death and driven out of all peace of mind, by dirty politicians who kept coming up and saying: “Ah, General Meade, I believe; perhaps you do not recollect meeting me in the year 1831, on a Mississippi steamboat? How do you do, sir? What move do you propose to execute next? Have you men enough, sir? What are the intentions of Lee, sir? How are the prospects of the rebellion, sir? Do you look upon it as essentially crushed, sir? Or do you think it may still rear its head against our noble Union, sir?” etc., etc. All of which the poor Chief (endeavoring to snatch a mouthful of chicken, the while) would answer with plaintive courtesy; while the obscure aides-de-camp were piling in all kinds of delicacies. . . . The papers say General Meade received imperative orders to give Lee battle; not a word of truth in it! You might as well give imperative orders to catch a sea-gull with a pinch of salt. Lee would perhaps have given us a chance; but the same storm that prevented our advance carried away the Rapidan bridge, and he could get nothing to eat. His forces were, I think, larger than supposed, especially in cavalry, which was very numerous.

Meade’s correspondence taken from The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Major-General United States Army, Vol. 2, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913), p. 154. Available via Google Books.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 36-8. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

 Have you read Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg yet? If not, you can buy it here!

False Alarm? (June 8, 1863)

The cavalry push that Meade mentions in his letter of June 8 will result the next day in the Battle of Brandy Station, the largest cavalry battle on the North American continent. Although technically a victory for the Confederates, it was also a huge black eye for Rebel cavalry commander Jeb Stuart, who was surprised and embarrassed by the Union attack.

Major General John Sedgwick. His men called him "Uncle John." (Library of Congress)

Major General John Sedgwick. His men called him “Uncle John.” (Library of Congress)

I think for the present the storm has blown over. Both Lee and Hooker appear to be playing at cross-purposes. Hooker took it into his head that Lee was moving and made preparations accordingly. These preparations were construed by Lee into a movement on our part, etc. Sedgwick is still, I understand, across, below Fredericksburg, but is unmolested by the enemy. Pleasanton, with a large force of cavalry, will cross above to-day, and push his way towards Culpeper and Gordonsville, to see what they are doing in that direction.

Meade’s letter taken from The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Major-General United States Army, Vol. 1, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913), pp. 383. Available via Google Books

Good-bye, Baldy (February 6, 1863)

William F. "Baldy" Smith was a Meade friend who eventually turned enemy. (Library of Congress)

William F. “Baldy” Smith was a Meade friend who eventually turned enemy. (Library of Congress)

In this letter from February 6, 1863, Meade mentions General William “Baldy” Smith, another man with whom he would have unpleasant dealings later. Smith and Meade were friendly enough at this time. In fact, Smith was one of the generals Meade invited to share his champagne and celebrate his assumption to command of the V Corps on December 23. But Smith, who had commanded the VI Corps at Fredericksburg, had also been one of the generals undermining Ambrose Burnside. He had even visited Abraham Lincoln at the White House to complain about Burnside’s generalship. (William Franklin, whom Meade mentioned in his previous letter, went with Smith. Both generals were sent packing from the Army of the Potomac.) When Theodore Lyman, Meade’s observant aide, met Smith in 1864 he described him as “a short, quite portly man, with a light-brown imperial and shaggy mustache, a round, military head, and the look of a German officer, altogether.” He was not really bald, although his hair was thinning. He possessed “unusual powers of caustic criticism” and quarreled incessantly with his superior officers. The Sedgwick who replaced Baldy Smith at the head of the VI Corps was John Sedgwick. He was a Connecticut native who had graduated from West Point two years after Meade. A lifelong bachelor, he was “married” to the army and enjoyed passing the time playing long games of solitaire. War correspondent George W. Smalley called him “one of the best generals we had: a man of utterly transparent honesty, simplicity, and truth of character; trusted, beloved, ardently followed by his men; a commander who had done great things and was capable of greater.” His men loved him and called him “Uncle John.”

I assume the Frailey Meade mentions is James M. Frailey, a Philadelphian who commanded the USS Quaker City, a sidewheel steamer that served in the Union blockading fleet. Southern ironclads had attacked Union vessels outside Charleston on January 31, seriously damaging the Quaker City.

Major General John Sedgwick. His men called him "Uncle John." (Library of Congress)

Major General John Sedgwick. His men called him “Uncle John.” (Library of Congress)

To-day an order is issued abolishing grand divisions and returning to the system of corps. I am announced as in command of the Fifth Corps. This is what I expected and accords with my ideas of what is best for the efficiency of the army. Baldy Smith has been relieved of his command and Sedgwick takes his corps—cause unknown, but supposed to be his affiliation with Franklin, and the fear that he would not co-operate with Hooker. This, however, is mere surmise, I have not seen any one to know or hear what is going on.

Last evening I received orders to send out an expedition this morning, which I did; but it has been storming violently all day, and this afternoon I sent to recall it. The Ninth Corps, which came with Burnside from North Carolina, is not announced in the order published to-day, and I hear it is under orders to move—where it is going, not known, but the probability is that Burnside has asked to have it with him, in case he returns to North Carolina.

The news from Charleston looks very badly, I hope our friend Frailey will come out all right. Stellwagon of theMercedita,if you remember we met at Mrs. Frailey’s last summer, the evening I went in there. Our navy has hitherto been so successful, that it seems hard to realize a reverse.

I do not know what to make of the political condition of the country. One thing I do know, I have been long enough in the war to want to give them one thorough good licking before any peace is made, and to accomplish this I will go through a good deal.

Meade’s letter taken from The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Major-General United States Army, Vol. 1, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913), pp. 353-354. Available via Google Books.